River conservation group opposes dam raise

Will a proposed increase in the height of Shasta Dam provide more water for California? Not necessarily, argues a statewide conservation group.

Friends of the River, which is based in Sacramento, has recently been leading rafting trips through the upper Sacramento River in order to raise awareness about issues facing California’s largest and most important river.

Fed by snowmelt from the slopes of Mt. Eddy and springs from nearby Mt. Shasta, the river flows south for nearly 60 miles to Lake Shasta reservoir. The reservoir is currently being studied for environmental impacts of a modest, CalFed-proposed dam raise of six to 12 feet intended to increase water supply.

Friends of the River concedes that the dam raise would have minimal environmental impacts on the scenic river, which is a trout angler’s paradise and also features class II-IV whitewater runs for kayakers and rafters as well as camping and hiking. But the group argues that it may not do what CalFed hopes, since changes in the level of water, which is now well below full capacity, depend entirely on rainfall.

Friends of the River is lobbying for what it calls more responsible and fiscally viable alternatives that should be pursued before work is done on water storage projects.

“Basically, CalFed wants to increase the size [of the dam], but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily creates more water,” says Steve Evans, conservation director at Friends of the River. “The big issue is whether it is more cost-effective to raise Shasta or to pursue other alternatives such as [having] Central Valley urban areas metering their water.”

During a recent Saturday float on the river, Friends of the River took a group of media personnel on a tour of some of the areas that would be damaged by the proposed dam raise. Along the way, we spotted a bald eagle and hillside waterfalls in the lush vegetation and enjoyed several rapid runs.

The organization is also concerned about a draft bill from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would allot a half-billion dollars for “unspecified water storage projects in the Central Valley.” The bill would allow dam projects to proceed with the approval of only the secretary of the interior, instead of the bevy of agencies and environmental watchdog groups that are now part of the approval process.

"Water issues in California center around how we use it," says Evans. "We’re never going to be able to stop worrying about droughts, no matter how many dams are built or raised. … We just need to be flexible and efficient at all times."